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2,500 Years Later, an Anonymous Artist Gets His Due

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure amphora of Type A: A. Athena; B. Herakles, about 500–490 B.C. Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig

Though we can't be certain of the details, he probably spent his days caked in clay. Maybe he talked about politics, or Persians, or his partner with the other men in the workshop. Wiped the sweat off his brow from the heat of the kiln and the long hours of labor. Stood, crouched, or sat—depending on how he liked to work—and carefully decorated huge vessels with the tiny flicks of a brush. His work ended up in the hands of a winning Athenian athlete, or displayed in the shelter of some dignitary’s home in a far-off Etruscan settlement in Italy. We can’t be certain of the details, but we can be certain of this: the Berlin Painter’s hands moved each day with the deftness only ancient Greece’s most skilled craftsman could command.

Who is this mysterious artist, who some 2,500 years after his life ended rose from obscurity to become a famous-but-anonymous painter of the ancient world with his first retrospective? It is the question The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C., on view in the Toledo Museum of Art’s Canaday Gallery from July 8 to October 1, 2017, seeks to answer for museumgoers.

“He wouldn’t have even dreamed of the concept of an exhibition,” said Adam Levine, associate director of the Toledo Museum of Art and associate curator of ancient art. “But his contributions have given us so many insights—into the life of ancient Greeks, and the exceptional ability and feel these people had for their craft. More than 2,000 years later he is an extremely important part of art history.”

Organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, The Berlin Painter and His World features masterpieces on loan from 15 museums and two private collections, including the British Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Vatican’s Museo Gregoriano Etrusco; and the Musée du Louvre.

“After the defeat of the invading Persians in 490 and 480–479 B.C., Athens was imbued with new power, wealth, and prestige,” said J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum and lead curator of the exhibition, which was shown first at Princeton. “Vase paintings are a partial window on society in this period.”

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure neck-amphora with ridged handles: Amazonomachy with Herakles (detail), about 490–480 B.C., Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig

The painted subjects range from athletics and musical performances to the rich body of Greek myth and epic. The vessels, though not very expensive, were still considered fine ware, and would have been used mostly for special occasions: symoposia (all-out drinking parties where aristocratic men celebrated), funerals, and dedications to gods, among others. They often carried precious liquids—water, wine, or oil—and their shapes have had a long-lasting aesthetic impact.

“For all the virtuosity of artists working in ceramic today, most people will leave this exhibition wondering if any new ceramic forms have been invented since ancient Greece,” said Levine. “But really almost our entire lexicon of ceramic shapes was invented by these people 2,500 years ago. Wine cups, water jugs, and the like more or less look the same.”

Though vessels have been excavated in Athens and other Greek sites (the region was a hotbed for pottery production because of the quality of its clay), many more were found throughout the Mediterranean, indicating they were a popular export at the time. They were discovered in great numbers when landowners, collectors, and others began systematically excavating ancient cemeteries in Italy in the late 18th century. Many of the vases in the exhibition were found in Etruscan tombs and sanctuaries, while others were in the tombs and temples of Ancient Greece’s Southern Italian colony.

“Archaeologists have been looking for them ever since, and new ones are discovered every day, from Spain to Georgia, and indeed in every country bordering the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, as well as beyond,” Padgett said. “They have survived so well because they are made of fired clay, which is very durable, and the decoration is executed in a purified clay that bonds strongly to the vessel surface. Sometimes even a large vase survives perfectly intact, usually protected within an undamaged tomb.”

And once the vessels were dug up, how did so many come to be assigned to the same person, named the Berlin Painter by the archaeologist and art historian Sir John Beazley? The great scholar made study of both red figure and black figure vases in the first half of the 20th century, and through connoisseurship (a knowledge of objects developed through repeated close looking and analysis), he identified which Attic vase paintings were by the same hands. The Berlin Painter was so named after a large lidded amphora in the Antikensammlung Berlin collection, now held in the Altes Museum and Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. (The amphora is known as the artist’s “name vase.”)

Though the artist signed none of his works, his painting is identified by its details.

Since the first published identification of the artist in 1911, the Berlin Painter’s oeuvre has grown to some 330 works, making him one of the best known artists of his kind. This lavishly illustrated catalogue features nine essays by leading scholars who explore the artist’s work, milieu, influence, and legacy. For sale in the TMA Store. $75.

“He is known for the elegance of his drawing, and the dexterous precision with which he painted both figures and ornament,” Padgett said. “He paid great attention to the outlines of his figures in relationship to one another and to the shape of the vessel.”

“The perfect coloration, this really sharp bright orange delineated against this beautiful black glossy background—this was all done in a period before there were clocks, before there were thermometers,” said Levine. “They were working on a potter’s wheel, but the potter’s wheel was not electrically powered. This was an incredibly laborious process.”

“The experimentation with this medium during this period was unbelievable,” Levine added. “The vase painters were clearly competitive and pushing each other.”

The Berlin Painter had a profound influence on contemporary Athenian vase-painters, many of whom imitated his style. Art historians recognize works by students and followers, and have traced the continuation of his workshop, in different hands, for two generations after he died or stopped working.

“Unlike some sculptors, such as Myron and Phidias, whose names and fame lived on after them, Athenian vase-painters were not remembered as old masters, and their names were lost to time,” Padgett said.

Though the man will never be identified by name (and art historians think he was male with some confidence thanks to imagery of males in depictions of pottery workshops and the historical knowledge of the strict gender roles enforced in ancient Greek society), his work remains one of the few remnants of the ancient world that gives contemporary people insight into the lives people lived long before us.

“Ultimately this exhibition is about the fact that we were able to discover an artist who was almost forgotten, because he had a unique differentiated style,” Levine said. “Everyone has a style or thing about them that is different—you don’t know if it’s going to be recognized in your lifetime or 2,500 years later. The Berlin Painter's talent was so distinguished we were able to piece together what he did thousands of years later. People are fascinated with how people lived in the past, and this exhibition gives us a peek into the Berlin Painter’s world.”

The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C. has been organized by the Princeton University Art Museum. Major support for this exhibition has been provided by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Leon Levy Foundation. The Toledo showing is made possible in part by Taylor Cadillac, Christie’s, Ohio Arts Council, James and Gregory Demirjian, Princeton University Alumni of Northwest Ohio, an anonymous donor, and generous gifts received in memory of Kurt Luckner with additional support from our 2017 Exhibition Program Sponsor ProMedica. Admission to the exhibition, on view July 8– Oct. 1, 2017, is free for members and $10 for non-members.

A version of this article originally appeared in Volume 13, Issue 2 of Art Matters, the Toledo Museum of Art’s member magazine.